Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

The Great Protestant Reformation Question

Thomas Babington Macaulay in his study

I’ve been reading Macaulay’s essay on ‘von Ranke’ (October 1840), which is nominally a review of the great German historian’s Ecclesiastical and Political History of the Popes of Rome, during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (transl. by Sarah Austin, 3 vols. 8vo. London: 1840), but is actually Macaulay himself speculating about the broader history of the Catholic church. Good stuff! His thesis is that Catholicism has faced four great challenges during its long life, two of which it easily crushed (the Albigensian crusade and Voltairean ‘irreligion’), and two of which inflicted severe though not fatal damage upon Catholic dominion: first, Philip of France’s invasion of Italy, which exiled the papacy from Rome to Avignon; and then, more significantly, the Protestant Reformation, Luther, the Anglican break and all that followed.

Having traced some of the implications of this, Macaulay signs-off with this parting shot:

We by no means venture to deduce from these phenomena any general law; but we think it a most remarkable fact, that no Christian nation, which did not adopt the principles of the Reformation before the end of the sixteenth century, should ever have adopted them. Catholic communities have, since that time, become infidel and become Catholic again; but none has become Protestant.

That’s interesting, isn’t it? People sometimes convert from Protestantism to Catholicism (‘crossing the Tiber’, as one of my friends calls it), and I suppose occasionally people convert the other way too. Do they though? I’m not sure. You remember what Stephen Dedalus says, in Joyce’s Portrait, when arguing with Cranley over his faith. His friend is strangely reassured that Dedalus is only contemplating atheism. ‘Then,’ he says, ‘you do not intend to become a protestant?’

— I said that I had lost the faith, Stephen answered, but not that I had lost selfrespect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?

Of the many questions that pertain to the Protestant Reformation, Macaulay’s seems to me the most intriguing, and possibly least tractable. Given that so many people in the sixteenth century were so persuaded, enthused, impassioned by the ideas of Protestantism — to the point, in many cases, of going to war, giving up their lives, sometimes enduring torture and painful execution — why was that not true of later centuries? There are, today, 1.4 billion Catholics globally, and somewhere near a billion Protestants, but all of the latter are descendents of those individuals, or societies, who converted in the 16th century, or else are descendents of people proselytised by missionaries from those people and their descendents. It is not that, as it might be, Poland in 1890 switched from Catholicism to Protestantism, or Mexico did so in 1980. We might wonder: why not? Whole populations found themselves moved to do precisely that in the 16th century after all.

What changed? One answer might be: people were driven to Protestantism by the corruption or failings of the Catholic church, and the church is not defined by those any more. But I’m not sure that’s true. Two of the main planks of early Protestant objection (the intertwining of Papal power with secular, often armed and violent, realpolitik on the one hand and the sense that priests had become corrupt and untrustworthy, products of a corrupt and untrustworthy dogma, on the other) have modern day analogues: the Church’s proximity to and tacit support for fascist regimes through the twentieth century let’s say; or the more recent sex scandals. Another answer might riff on Stephen Dedalus’s statement, above. Perhaps after its initial craze, the dust settled and people started to think: whatever advantages Protestantism might or might not have, it lacks the apostolic continuity and elaborately worked (over many hundreds of years) interlocking superstructure of doctrine and credentia that the Catholic church manifests. Conceivably, as Protestantism coalesced into its various national churches, it became as reified and problematic as Catholicism, such that peoples unhappy with the latter turned not to Lutheranism or Anglicanism but, as it might be, to Scientology or Marxism or something else. I’m not sure that quite explains it, either.

Why then did Protestant Reformation flare so significantly in the 1500s only afterwards to settle into a groove of its own, expanding into non-Christian locations (Africa and so on) but no longer recruiting significantly from among already Catholic populations? I don’t know the answer.

[Coda: thinking about this some more, I wonder if the answer is that the ‘big’ change of the Protestant Reformation wasn’t so much unique, but was instead the first and biggest of a kind of diversification of religion more broadly — so the question is less ‘why wasn’t there another big Protestant Reformation in the 19th century’ or anything like that, but rather the task is to trace the various ways religious catholicism in the small-c sense of the word splintered into a thousand faiths and churches worldwide, some continuing and developing Christian traditions (Quakers, Mormons etc) and other inventing wholly new traditions. Is that the answer, I wonder?]

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Various jottings and thoughts.

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.

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